In 2020, the Detroit Lions backfield has the highest upside that it has had in a while, with speedster Kerryon Johnson hitting his third season, versatile rookie D’Andre Swift coming into the fold and former Alabama standout Bo Scarborough as a probable goal-line and short-yardage specialist.
The Lions haven’t seen consistent production from the running back position in a long time, but if one of those three backs can be even a fraction as great as the three on the list, quarterback Matthew Stafford and the rest of the Detroit Lions will be very happy.
3. Mel Farr (1967-1973)
It’s pretty easy to make a list of greatest running backs in Lions history when one has the nickname of “Superstar.” While Farr only played for seven seasons due to injury issues, he rightfully earned that nickname.
Farr started his Lions career with incredible upside, winning the Rookie of the Year award with 860 rushing yards. The following year, he would go on to lead the league in yards per touch with 6.4. On three separate occasions, Farr finished his seasons in the top-10 in rushing yards per game.
While knee injuries halted Farr from being as legendary as the top two backs on this list, his best season was easily 1970, when he earned his second Pro Bowl nod after amassing 930 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.
Farr went on to have a successful career outside of football, as he invested his savings in opening a car dealership in Oak Park, Michigan. He did well with the business, expanding to 14 dealerships throughout Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas.
2. Billy Sims (1980-1984)
Had it not be for the No. 1 player on this list, Sims would be the reason why the No. 20 in Detroit is one of the most iconic jerseys in football.
After being drafted first overall out of Oklahoma in 1980, Sims proceeded to have the greatest rookie rushing season in Lions history, starting out strong by amassing 217 total yards and three touchdowns.
That impressive debut got the ball rolling on Sims’ incredible rookie season, in which he rushed for more than 1,300 yards and scored 13 rushing touchdowns in his first of his three consecutive Pro Bowl bids.
Sims finished his career as the leading rusher for the Motor City in both yards and touchdowns, along with more than a few rushing records. He currently still sits second in all of those categories, with 5,106 total rushing yards and 42 rushing touchdowns.
1. Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
It couldn’t be anybody else. Sanders is in the discussion for greatest running back in NFL history, and he is easily the most successful Detroit Lions player of all time.
The bounty of highlights of the legend show that he was playing the game at a different speed than everyone else. It was as if was playing in slow motion with how easily he could read defenses and avoid incoming defenders.
Sanders spent 10 seasons with the Lions, and during that time he was selected to 10 Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro selection six times.
He never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards in his career and only had fewer than 1,500 total yards from scrimmage once, which is arguably something we will never see again with a greater emphasis on passing in today’s game.
Sanders led the league in rushing four times and total scrimmage yards twice. His dominance during his career was consistent and unwavering, cementing his legendary status.
When he retired, he averaged 99.8 yards per game, good for second all-time in NFL history only behind fellow legend Jim Brown.